From the office: Which way did your ancestors vote?

By Editor, 23 June 2016 - 12:42pm

Seeing the queues of people voting in the EU Referendum this morning reminded WDYTYA? Magazine editor Sarah Williams about the value of historic electoral records

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 23 June 2016
Sarah Williams, Editor
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Rochester poll

A page from the marked up copy of the 1806 Rochester poll book on archive.org

By this time tomorrow, we will know if the British people have chosen to remain or leave the European Union. As I came into work this morning I saw long queues outside the polling stations suggesting that turnout for this referendum is going to be high.

Interestingly I think I know how every one of my friends is going to vote. Those of us who can remember the world before social media will also remember a time when you didn’t necessarily know the political leanings of your friends. The old adage that you should ‘never talk about religion or politics’ doesn’t seem to apply to people’s Facebook status.

The secret ballot was only introduced in 1872. Before then, voting was not only done in public, but the way you voted was recorded and then published for anyone to see. The idea was that if everybody’s vote was open and transparent, nobody could be accused of fixing the results of an election.

Of course, the downside to this was that voters could be intimidated or encouraged to vote in a particular way by people who had influence over them. Canvassers would use poll books from previous elections to see who they needed to put pressure on or who they needed to ensure voted.

Some poll books that have made their way into the archives have been marked up with changes of address and notes of death. Type ‘poll book’ into archive.org and you will find some examples, including one from Rochester (1806) where voters who had died between that election and the next have been struck through and ‘dead’ written next to them. Goldmine for family historians!

Both Ancestry.co.uk and TheGenealogist.co.uk also have a selection of poll books amongst their collections and you can find out more about them using our guide: How did our ancestors vote?  

Old poll books can help you place ancestors pre-census or, if you are extremely lucky, narrow down a date of death, or give you a clearer insight into their status (not everyone could vote) or profession, but they can also show you who your ancestors supported. With a bit of research this might give you a personal insight that you are unlikely to gain from any other document.

Who knows what genealogy will look like in the future, but if our descendants have access to our social media, they will probably know how we voted too! 
 

 

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